Photo by Mark CastleYou all know the story of the blues, how it was birthed in the Deep South by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin and then came up the Mississippi like a wayward German submarine, piloted by the roughhewn likes of Sissyboy Armstrong, Terrible Herbst and Pabst-Addled Simms. It came to rest in Chicago, where, if you stood real close to the periscope, you could hear them singing in there, punctuated by the clank of ratchets and such on the hull.
This influenced a new generation of citified bluesmen, including Arden "Piffle" Sykes and the legendary Upset Stomach, who picked up electric guitars and never paid for them. Their brash new music reflected the hard realities of city life, and competition between the musicians was fierce. As Leonard Chess told Howlin' Wolf, "Only foxy guys get into my studio."
The blues hop scotched from Kansas City to Houston, reaching a pinnacle in 1961 with Lips Manscomb's plaintive "I Have Some Substantial Blues, I Mean, Goddamn It, I'm Bluer Than Superman's Hair." The blues then settled down in a gated community in Stanton, and there it remains.
What more can you say about the blues, except that, if it were toothpaste, it would be about time to throw the tube out? Very few players today are doing anything that wasn't done better 35 years ago—or that hasn't been done to death since. What was once one of the most vibrant, inventive forms of American expression has become emotionally muscle-bound, so sausage-packed with overwrought bluster and showboating that its practitioners wouldn't recognize a real feeling if it sat on their face, which would at least shut them the fuck up.
It was Johnny Otis who noted during the first wave of amped-up, overemoting 1960s white-guy blues rock bands that its practitioners were like hucksters "scratching when it don't itch and laughing when it ain't funny." Things have scarcely improved since.
Which makes us all the luckier here in OC because several of the grandest exceptions to this rule live or work in our midst. Ever since James Harman moved here decades ago and filtered so many great players through his bands, the county has been a magnet for non-scratching, non-sucky blues practitioners.
Some of them have put out meritorious albums in recent days, including Stanton's own JUNIOR WATSON, who gets my vote as the best blues guitarist alive. It's not so much that he's mastered every shade of blues playing, but that he's stepped past that and plays with pure personality. Like Louis Armstrong, Watson's just about incapable of playing a boring note. Every solo is an adventure, a surprise, a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a clown-sized pair of polka-dot panties.
His new album, If I Had a Genie, is pretty swell, but not so great that I don't hope he does another one real soon. It's not quite as fun as his previous solo album, Long Overdue, nor is it as fun as his record-release party for the new album, where he mixed surf tunes with a bossa nova playfully renamed "The Girl From Emphysema."
Watson recorded If I Had a Genie in Texas, and it sounds like a Texas album, on which rhythmic drive and earnest, unadorned delivery often get points over unfettered originality. But whether playing inside the box or out, Watson is a thrilling guitarist. Even on unchallenging novelty tunes such as "Two Tacos," he injects big fat fills that sound like a whole horn section and wild, logic-affronting solos. Baron Shul, the sax player on the session, is an able foil for Watson, launching each solo like a man heading into a brawl.
Not surprisingly, the originals—"Flappin'," "Spring-Roll" and "Strangest Woman"—are the loosest and strongest things here; Watson's guitar buzzes, implores, skitters, splutters, oozes, annexes the Sudetenland and does all the other Watsonian things that never occur to other players. Buy it, and hope he does his next album closer to home.
When Watson plays locally, he often uses JEFF TURMES on sax, and he'd do well to borrow some of Turmes' songs while he's at it, because his Every Day's My Lucky Day is brimming with topnotch stuff. Turmes is such a strong supporting player in the local blues scene—having lent potent bass, sax, guitar and horn charts to James Harman, Kid Ramos, Watson and other players including Turmes' wife, Janiva Magness—that it's almost a shame to see him stepping out front, but only almost.
He's an accomplished musician and a capable singer, but his strong suit is songwriting. He displays a whimsy and storytelling ability that reminds nicely of Willie Dixon, Mose Allison, Louis Jordan and Tom Waits, the latter of whom also seems to have influenced the skewed sonic outlook of some of the album's tracks. This is all a very good thing.
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"Bye-bye, nice try/Your memory lingers like a finger in my eye," Turmes sings on the loping "Don't Count Me Out," and that's typical of the atypical turns his wry lyrics take. Musically, there's a grand mess of styles here, from the Waitsian "Great Big Slob" to the New Orleans second-line vibe of "The World Keeps Getting Younger" to the boisterous R&B of "Me and My Big Mouth Again." There's some splendid playing throughout from Rick Holmstrom, the late Marco Fiume, Juke Logan, Steve Mugalian and other area stalwarts, as well as Turmes' own multitalented self, but it's all in the service of the song and its mood.
On JEFFREY P. ROSS' My Pleasure, meanwhile, the songs seem to exist as a framework on which to hang solos. You may know him as just Jeff Ross, the genre-jumping guitarist who fired up the country licks with Rank and File, the second-generation Desert Rose Band and others; who played blues with Freddie Brooks; and has dished out stunningly good Django-style jazz with several local and Austin, Texas, outfits. My Pleasure is Ross' first solo outing, and unfortunately, it's a blues album. Ross is a great guitarist, with more nuance to his playing than most players even know exists, but like with most contemporary blues, much of this album sounds like he's sifting through the tailing heaps of a mined-out musical form.
If you've heard a whole lot of blues, My Pleasure may sound like pork for dessert after a nice pork, pork and more pork dinner. On the other hand, if you haven't heard a whole lot of the form, Ross' album wouldn't be a bad place to start. Listen to him squeeze out the notes on "Flim Flam" or the way he builds on Earl Hooker's lean, fluid style on "Wah Wah Blues." His lyrics on "Muddy Waters"—sung by Guy Forsyth—inject some daring sexual ambiguity into the bermanly blues landscape, with the sly spoonerism: "Listen to me baby/I ain't gonna be your dog/I'd rather sleep with Muddy Waters/Drink from a hollow log."
But compared to Ross' lively, expressive take on Django Reinhardt's "Blues Clair," much of the stock blues material surrounding it only sounds like a confining straitjacket on his playing.